Out of a wide range of submissions from around the world, Dimitri Mellos’ recent street photography from New York City was named a Juror’s Pick in the first annual Magnum Photography Awards. Here we feature an extended edit of his New York series, “I speak of the city,” along with an insightful interview with the artist conducted by LensCulture’s Editor-in-Chief, Jim Casper. Enjoy!
LC: You’ve studied philosophy and psychology — can you talk about how knowledge of those subjects influences you as a street photographer?
DM: Obviously, my theoretical background (along with myriad other factors) has molded me into the person — and hence the photographer — that I am, so it indirectly informs my work, but it does not influence me directly. I am not a conceptual photographer, I have no interest in channeling my photographic work to illustrate or express some theory or concept. I think that such a conceptual approach usually makes for photographs that are feeble as art and feel forced, denoting a lack of real inspiration and engagement with the world.
Having said that, I think that there are more indirect, latent affinities between my different interests — different aspects of my life are informed by similar motivations and sensibilities. For instance, my involvement in both photography and psychology is grounded in a deep-seated curiosity, an insatiable interest in other people and what makes them tick.
In my photographs I often try to capture small gestures or facial expressions that suggest something about that person’s emotional state or frame of mind in that particular moment.
I think that art is vacuous if it lacks emotional depth, so I aim for my photos to be emotionally nuanced and meaningful.
I am much more interested in emotional richness than intellectual content (which, more often than not, turns out to be pseudo-intellectual and hollow). Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for anti-intellectualism here: I believe that being well-read and cultured in the widest possible sense usually makes one a stronger artist; but the influence should be indirect and unconscious, not forced.
LC: Can you talk a little bit about your process? Do you intentionally go to particular kinds of places to make your work? Or do you always have a camera with you? Do you find there is a better time of day or night to get the best shots?
DM: Unfortunately, I almost never have a camera with me on a day-to-day basis. I have a day job in order to make a living, and my workplace is outside the city, so as a result I must photograph mostly on weekends or when I’m on vacation or take a day off work. It would be a dream come true if I could photograph on a daily basis!
As for the best time of day, that partly depends on the location — for instance, in New York, due to the grid layout and orientation of the streets, the best time for the kind of sunlight and shadows I am looking for happens to be in the early afternoon. In terms of locations, I usually prefer more crowded neighborhoods and those parts of the city that have greater architectural interest.
But one of the greatest pleasures in street photography is the quality of “letting go,” what I call the process of abandoning oneself to the flow of life of the city. So while I often will start walking around with a vague direction in mind, I will impulsively turn down this or that street based on nothing more than a vague premonition, or just trusting random chance to deliver something interesting along the way. By wandering semi-aimlessly, I feel I am opening myself up more to the element of serendipity.
LC: Do you have any routines or habits that help you get into the “flow” of taking pictures of strangers in the street?
DM: It is not easy, and does not always happen; it is definitely not a state of being that can be summoned at will. In my case, I think that it helps when I can actually carve out the time to walk around and photograph for a few hours — you cannot just flip a switch instantaneously and be in the correct frame of mind. Usually you have to gradually slip into that state of receptiveness, just by walking and observing and photographing, and, most importantly, by gradually forgetting oneself.
The “flow” has to do both with becoming more and more attuned and alert to one’s surroundings, but also with overcoming one’s timidity and one’s ethical and emotional inhibitions about photographing strangers. Street photography is always very hard, and it is even harder emotionally than it is technically, at least if one is not super-aggressive and intrusive but is aware of the ethical complexity of the whole enterprise. It is hard to mentally cross that barrier and fleetingly intrude into the lives of strangers, it’s a delicate balance.
The only way to do it is by doing it, and the more you push yourself to persist, the more you get into the flow and it gets a little bit easier.
But every day is a new day, and you have to start anew almost from scratch — at least that has been my experience.
LC: Why do you choose photography as your primary creative outlet, rather than writing or filmmaking or other art forms?
DM: That’s the million-dollar question! I wish I knew. I think that photography chose me, rather than the other way around.
Here’s a funny story: I was not initiated into photography by my dad or grandfather as a kid, as often seems to be the case. I did not grow up in an artistic household even. And yet, I remember that as a child of 9 or 10, I would walk around with the family’s Kodak Instamatic (with no film loaded), going through the motions of taking photos. There was something about that activity that instinctively resonated with me, that felt truly magical. I finally picked up a camera again much later, and this time I did have some film.
I really love many other art forms, and especially literature and movies (I’m a total addict) — but I would still choose photography over anything else. Why? I think part of the appeal for me is the fact that photography, and street photography in particular, makes art out of very humble ingredients. Even though it comes directly from the external world, with very little mediation, it is also immensely transformative — not by altering reality, but essentially by just pointing it out.
For me, the element of saving something from the passage of time is really important, which is why I love street photography more than any other genre.
It has the function of preserving a brief sliver of life that would otherwise disappear, leaving no trace.
The passage of time is something that all of us have to contend with, one way or another. But often, because this awareness disturbs us so much, we push it out far out of our minds.
LC: What is it about the street that attracts you to make photographs, rather than nature or landscapes or architecture, for example?
DM: Well, as far as I’m concerned people and their interactions are more interesting than a landscape or a building. I have, in fact, also photographed landscapes with some success, and I’m fond of that work, but the street fascinates me much more because of the element of transience and serendipity — the fact that just a few hundredths of a second can make or break a picture. By this, I don’t mean the thrill of a technical challenge, but rather, as I was saying before, the fact that street photography makes one keenly aware of the fleeting nature of life.
A good street photograph is like a haiku, equal parts beauty and fragility. Of course I’m not talking of those supposedly humorous street photographs which seem to be nothing more than crude visual jokes, going for easy laughs. That is a style I try to avoid. I love humor in photographs, but it’s better when it’s a little nuanced.
LC: Do you “know” when you’ve captured a good moment, or are you more often surprised when you review your photos after a day of shooting?
DM: The really good photos are very few and far between — as Alex Webb always says, in street photography even the best photographers fail 99% of the time. So usually, I feel I know right away when I have taken one of those rare, really good pictures.
That said, I occasionally get a pleasant surprise while editing. This sometimes happens when I am re-editing older work. It is interesting how a photo that I may have totally disregarded when I took it a few years back may really stand out for me now. It speaks to how one’s sensibility and visual criteria evolve and — hopefully — becomes more refined and discerning with time. This is not only because one evolves as a photographer, but also as one evolves and matures as a person.
LC: Do you have any tips or advice for people who want to become better at street photography?
DM: I have a very simple piece of advice: be interested in the world, not in yourself. And also, don’t be lazy: be prepared to walk and walk and walk, in the sun and in the cold.
—Interview with Dimitri Mellos by Jim Casper